My husband and I sit with breakfast sandwiches and strong coffee at a narrow, two-person table in the bakery where he first asked for my phone number ten years ago. He waves his arm across the room, toward a row of tables running the length of the long wall.
“We were sitting over there.”
We don’t have time to stop by City Bakery on every visit to Asheville, North Carolina, but when we do, I like to be in this place again. I like to order the dark coffee and see if it tastes the same as it did that first time. I like to see if the place still feels special, like something that is ours.
On our first date, a few weeks after he asked for my phone number at the bakery, my husband and I spent several hours in a downtown coffee shop called World Café. Sitting at the tiny round table, cupping our drinks, we arrived at that moment in first-date conversation when age comes up. I knew I was older than him — but not by much, I hoped. We shared stories about college, about what happened during those years for each of us. The age difference started to show.
“How old are you?” I finally asked. The answer was a wide margin. I had to tell him my age, of course. I was just past the threshold of thirty. Why couldn’t it have been two months earlier, so I could say twenty-anything, just like him?
It is rare to meet another mom of young children and discover that she is, in fact, the same age as me. And while it isn’t always necessary to tell friends how old I am — I used to avoid it at all costs —I find myself sharing my age more and more.
“I turn 40 next month,” I say. Surprisingly, the words come easy. They were harder to say half a decade ago, sitting in a living room with a group of young twenty-somethings, other brand-new moms, while I bounced my first baby on my 34-year-old knees. A lot of water had passed under the bridge for me since college, a number of moves, jobs, churches, and towns. I had a hard time identifying with those barely-post-grad girls, even though they were mothers, too. My experiences had grown so varied across my single twenties, and the friends I’d grown close to had begun to span the decades. The fresh young moms would turn their faces towards me when they realized I was older, and we would all feel uncomfortable for a moment. I would wish I’d kept quiet about my age.
But that wasn’t, and isn’t, really an option. This is the reality: the extra decade under my belt and all the people and places across that time — an almost impossible count of coffee shops and friends, apartments and houses and wooded hikes and downtown streets that those extra years allowed for. Those years were so full of life that the weight of memory is, even now, sometimes overwhelming. An indie-pop band called the Weepies sings, “I held so many people in my suitcase heart,” and so it is for me. All of my experiences and memories make me who I am now – this is true for everyone – and I wouldn’t trade that long single decade of my twenties for anything. I can see that now. Which means I can’t mind parenting young children in my mid- and late-thirties, and I can’t mind other people knowing my age, not if they are really going to know me.
“I’m almost 40,” I can say without feeling uncomfortable anymore. I feel just right. I feel full of everything that matters. I am rich in the places and people I get to call mine. I have begun to freely share my age, not as a brand of pride, though that is a part of how I feel (I have achieved this decade!), but as a way of saying, My life is good. As it was at 23 right after college, and at 30 on that last first date, and at 34 and 38 in the labor and delivery room.
Some other moms have quietly told me, “Me, too. I’m getting close to forty.” Invariably, they confess they aren’t ready. They don’t like the idea of middle age. They ask, “How are you comfortable with being older?”
I tell them it is because I treasure the baggage I carry. The abundance of my life thus far presses in on me, and the weight of it is a comfort.
I unpack my memories from time to time, like my husband did at the bakery.
“Yes, it was over there,” I answer him. “You asked for my phone number at one of those tables.”
I bask in the glow of past moments, which make for a warmer sun because of all that has happened since. We are about to get on the road to head home to our children after a weekend away. We miss them. My husband turns to look at me and says, ”It would be great if they were here.”
I imagine my oldest walking through the door of the café, and our youngest shouting loudly and wreaking havoc on all the plates and silverware within arm’s reach. We would have to clear the table. We are ready to go home to them, to our life as it is right now.
We grab our coffees and bus our dishes. At the door, I cast a backward glance across the room where, at 30, my already-rich life gained a future wealth I could hardly have imagined.
Yes, I am ready to welcome this new decade, mostly because I won’t be leaving anything behind. My suitcase heart, miraculously, keeps getting bigger.